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January 2001

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The Continuous News Desk

The New York Times is doing the expected thing – using its own site to congratulate itself. (Is it still “synergy” if the site of publication and the site that’s the subject are one and the same?) In an interview that cries out for editing, we learn a few things about

The interesting thing for The New York Times about a site like Amazon, I think, is that Amazon, although it’s ostensibly a retail site is really for many people an information site.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a central source for information about books other than Amazon and a central movie source other than the Internet Movie Database? It sometimes rankles to link to a commercial site. Where’s the Library of Congress when you need it?

(And it’s even worse than that. Amazon owns the Internet Movie Database!)

We have some reporters, when they get an exclusive, call us up right away, or they tell Continuous News Operations... [staffed] by about eight or nine people, one in Washington, and they put together breaking news stories just for us, and they either get the stories from reporters or they write them themselves, and that’s helped a lot. It’s not perfect. We’d still like a little better quality, a little faster production. But it’s improving.

Indeed, in a postdrudge era, there is but one cardinal rule for online newspapers: Publish immediately, but publish only what you can prove.

We’ve all read online news stories that effectively traffic in rumour. Just as there is a tendency in live TV to keep talking for minutes on end even when there is no new information, there is a reluctance online to publish three sentences if that’s everything that is presently known. It’s vaguely unseemly. “We’ve got to pad it out to at least three paragraphs,” they think.

Nope. The saving grace here is that you continuously update the story as new facts come in. Television prefers not to do this, since it requires uncomfortable switching between “regularly-scheduled programming” and “breaking news.” (Yet television has settled on the worst possible alternative – filling up dead air with speculative banter by reporters.) But we are not television. We’re better. (Aren’t we?)

Metadata is sexy

The generally reliable Stewart Alsop does a great job explaining what metadata is. Nice example: “Start thinking about the digital world, and you’ll begin to see just how important metadata truly is. Have you taken more than 100 pictures with that digital camera you recently bought? You’ll discover that there’s not much metadata for all those picture files; too bad, because with pictures, the value of metadata is amplified since you want to keep them forever and remember years later why they mattered.”

(Previous NUblog coverage.)

This just in:
Foreigners are foreign!

We do a lot of yammering about multilingualism. But some people only believe hard facts. One report provides them.

In a survey:

While many consider English a universal language, even in Sweden and Denmark, countries with a high degree of English proficiency, 64% and 63%, respectively, users prefer their own language.

Curiously, the highest demand for content in one’s native language came from countries with a combination of strong nationalism and maximum differentiation from English orthography: China, Japan, Brazil, Korea. In fact, reading between the lines it becomes obvious that the looser the ties with the United States, the stronger the desire for Web sites not in English.

Meanwhile, a smart article nails down the “business case” for localization:

Assume that 1,000 people per week, based in Germany, visit the website to buy a computer peripheral valued at $200. Our usability testing showed that, with the localised site, 89% would be successful. In contrast, if the localised site did not exist and customers had to use the English site, 64% would be successful. This is a difference of 25%, or in our example, 250 customers. Assume that these customers choose instead to go to a local electronics store to buy their printer.... Let us make the conservative assumption that the client loses 10% of sales due to this effect. These assumptions lead us to estimate that the client would lose 25 customers per week, or in our example a revenue of 25 x $200 = $5,000/week. This scales to $260,000/year. Clearly this value will be magnified significantly if we consider the full range of the client’s products.

It’s pretty simple: Why buy something from a site you cannot completely understand? As we’ve said before, E-commerce content is content. (Heck, even the New York Times admits that.)

More than one kind of writing

We were never very impressed with Crawford Kilian’s advice on writing for the Web, which boils down to “Cut, cut, and cut again.”

We’ve covered the issues involved in long online content before (first; second; third). Moral of the story? Some Web pages need to be 3,000 words long. Present the text appropriately and nobody’s gonna get hurt.

Now Kilian provides a more sophisticated analysis of online reading, enumerating these styles of reader. Writing a very long article for Web Techniques (indeed, it is itself the “long columns of closely-packed text” he decries), he tells us:

Web designer Jeffrey Zeldman makes a crucial distinction about those who use this medium. He says there are three very separate groups with different goals and attitudes:

  1. Viewers who would rather be watching TV. This group goes to the Web in search of eye candy and other audiovisual jolts. They use text only as directions to the next surprise.
  2. Users who want information they can apply to their own work. They want your stats for their report, or your business plan as a model for their own. They love hit-and-run retrieval, they hate to scroll, and no one has ever built a site that they find really sticky.
  3. Readers (a rare breed). They will actually scroll through long documents, even whole books. Or they’ll download what they find, print it out, and read it in an armchair like any other print document.
  4. A new but growing fourth group is the listeners. Whether sight-impaired or not, they use programs that read text off the screen. As voice programs improve in quality, more people will adopt them.

(Crawford the K appears to be citing Jeffy the Z’s article “Design Your Audience.” It’s something of a classic.)

Fascinating. The second point applies to one of our founding precepts – that the Web is divided into service and content sites. Your content can facilitate a service. (We mentioned this already.)

So kudos to Kilian for accepting reality. (He was becoming perilously nielsenesque for a while.) But we are very tired of this kind of admonition: “Each of these groups needs a particular kind of text, and if they don’t find it on your site, they’ll move elsewhere.” It’s simply not true. There is no such thing as perfect elasticity online. Sites are not interchangeable; people do not give up quite as easily as is thought, though that may be true with E-commerce sites.

If an item interests you, you will finish it. You will put up with a lot in order to do so. You may not read anything else at that site, but you won’t bail mid-paragraph.

Do you doubt us? OK. Tell us the last time you bailed from a Web site in mid-paragraph because the particular writing style, as enumerated by Kilian, pushed you over the edge.

It just doesn’t happen.

We need to knock off the hard sell. When it comes to Web writing, our goals should be:

Short, punchy, heavily subdivided Web copy is nice when appropriate. It ain’t the only way to go, because there’s more than one way to read online.

(Pre-emptive strike: We write long here, but we break things up in lists, use more than one kind of emphasis for scannability, employ a liquid table layout that works even on a 640-by-480 screen, write strictly to HTML 4 specs, use every relevant accessibility tag in the book, and employ overridable liquid stylesheets. We walk the walk.)



Where have we been? Organizing the archives into subject classifications. And we did it the old-fashioned way, like Mom used to make, from our grocer’s dairy case, churning the butter by hand, turning and turning and turning the handle of the ice-cream maker, baking our own puff pastry, darning our own socks and joining into quilting bees – that last of which of course could not possibly stand as precedents for online community.


Valley of the dolls

Kids! Don’t mix ’n’ match your pills!

Oh, you knew that already. But did Julie Christie in the NUblog’s Movie of the Week, Fahrenheit 451 (op cit.)? Well, no. She mixed pills bearing the wrong colours and numbers, and Morag had to phone up and try to get her detoxed – and, in this illiterate dystopia, all without written words.

Words, for heaven’s sake. It’s what the media are about. (Photographers, we acknowledge your objections in advance.) But two examples show that uniting divergent media builds up obstacles in the simple task of handling copy. It’s another ludicrously misguided idea from convergence apologists.

Down in Tampa, they’re trying to unite a newspaper, a Web site, and a TV station. And she’s not workin’, this.

Because all three media partners have different – and incompatible -- computer systems, this model of convergence shares news budgets or stories by printing out hard copies and running them around to the various departments.... An even more serious problem, however, is the paucity of software that can simultaneously handle newspaper text, online copy, and video.

Every vendor of newspaper composition systems has some kind of gateway to “repurpose” print stories to the Web. But they work no better than a word processor’s export feature, and invariably leave out any kind of hyperlink. And how to you go in the other direction? Someday, a newspaper somewhere will publish in print something that was natively written for the Web, with links and proper HTML encoding and the whole shooting match. What then?

And on-air scripts are very different creatures from any other variation of human writing. Run that sort of thing in a print publication and people will laugh you out of town; do it online and you’ll be Slashdotted to death. The scripts are that different.

(Factoid: Online and in print, stories are edited. In broadcasting, scripts are vetted. Same planet, different worlds.)

Presently, studio composition systems cannot even reformat Teleprompter copy to conform with television captioning standards. (The words always end up looking like they came from a prompter, in ways we could explain if anyone cares to inquire.)

So how can any system, even one based on XML, automagically transform one story into formats as different as print, Web, prompter or radio script, and, of course, captions? It can’t. Reality check: This isn’t a question of markup. You have to rewrite the words. This sort of thing requires human knowledge and intervention every step of the way.

...a whiz-bang demonstration of one attempt that could efficiently handle electronic and video information – but hadn’t been configured to allow reporters to see the size of their stories. “A single vendor with a solution to all these issues simply doesn’t exist yet,” [a source] said.

Like, no kidding. A person who expects software to mold words is a person who sees beauty in clip art and Microsoft wizards.

Meanwhile, CNN is shitcanning a few hundred people, and we don’t particularly care. CNN, you see, is boring. (We won’t explain why, because that would involve linking to terms like “Stephen Marshall” and “Channel Zero,” and we’re not feeling up to that this week.) A memo explains:

CNN newsgatherers must be multi-skilled and meet the requirements of our TV, radio and interactive services. No longer will a newsgatherer work only for TV or Radio or Interactive. Correspondents whose expertise is TV reporting must know how to write for Interactive and provide tracks for Radio and deliver for them as needed. Newsgathering bosses, at the same time, must be judicious and reasonable in assigning cross-platform reporting. On occasion, for example, a correspondent who usually reports for TV might be assigned to report only for Interactive or Radio, while another correspondent focuses on TV. [...]

Look for the quick introduction of small, high-quality DV cameras and laptop editing equipment (a Mac laptop), enabling us to deploy smaller reporting teams one or two people at times when it makes sense. Larger gear will be with us for some time to come and will be used as needed. But the days of routinely dispatching three- and four-person reporting teams with cases of bulky equipment are approaching an end. As we introduce this new gear, correspondents would do well to learn how to shoot and edit (even if called upon only occasionally to utilize those skills), and smart shooters and editors will learn how to write and track. While this is not a one-size-fits-all strategy and CNN will always value exceptional ability, the more multi-talented a newsgatherer, the more opportunity the News Group will provide that person.

CNN (that is, AOL) has issued an edict:

Mark our words: The living will envy the dead. 50-year-old producers who happen to be held in low esteem and who just cannot get this Web stuff will be slowly ostracized, with fewer “opportunities,” a Business English euphemism rivaling “final solution” for barely-hidden menace.

The programming is bad enough as-is. How much worse will things get when CNN Radio journos start writing Web articles, and TV producers start shooting their own tape?

In truth, divergent media require specialists, not generalists. Experienced TV presenters, writers, and producers should stick with TV, as should radio and Web types, respectively.

But CNN could have gotten it right:

SuperDesk: A revolutionary concept. Keith McAllister’s idea placing CNN’s shift leaders from U.S. and International Newsgathering and our key outlets together at a to-be-constructed Atlanta newsroom roundtable. The results: faster, smarter editorial decision-making; enhanced cross-service/platform thinking/communications; better prioritizing; clearer direction to bureaus; better matching of talent to tasks; create organic continuity, a rolling, collaborative editorial process for same-day and futures’ decision-making; demonstrate “one CNN” by example.

Instead of forcing alien media on specialists, we say combine specialists into groups. CNN now expects one person to produce stories for up to three media. Why not expect a group of ten people (producers, writers, presenters, shooters, editors) to act as their own SuperDesk? They can divide up tasks as they see fit and buttress each other’s weaknesses. CNN seems to want one story from one employee rather than one story from a small crew, as is presently done. Why not ask for multiple stories from a larger crew? The ratio of stories to staff would increase noticeably in the modified-SuperDesk approach.

And indeed, another story suggests the Age of the WebRadioVideographer will not soon come to the bunkers of Atlanta:

“We shared what we have learned with other people in the company – our success and our mistakes,” [some well-paid fonctionnaire said]. “You will always have television producers producing television and interactive producers producing interactive. It’s the way in which they work together in managing the news and info and stories that come in from the field that’s the real true test.”

(No, stupid. Send everyone out to the field together. There’s no duplication: The Web kids can carry el-cheapo cameras suitable for MPEG video, and the now-disparaged-and-interchangeable broadcast crew can carry the Betacams. We concede: Everyone will probably have a tape recorder. But, hey, you can interview more than one source at a time this way, on the record.)

Every advantage conferred to the elite CNN managerial class by the SuperDesk approach should rightly be conferred to the actual workers. Because that’s where the results will actually show: In the programming, not the management.

If you want to form a gestalt, let the right people do it. CNN journos are now expected to perform every task alone, while the managers are granted the luxury of collaboration.

We continue to loathe convergent media.


Appointment with broadband

The Überpretentious Canadian “arts” network, Bravo, operates on the conceit of appointments: Appointment with cinema, with music, etc. The idea is you’re just too damn busy to watch TV, which is usually too tawdry for your artistique impulses anyway, but you will schedule an “appointment” to watch For Whom the Bell Tolls, or whatever highbrow program you think separates you from the lower orders.

(At least Camille Paglia is honest: The trashier TV is, the more she likes it. And trash is the essential nature of television, she holds. Accurately, we think.)

Anyway, Dale Dougherty has the same idea for broadband content. (Deploy quotation marks around those words as desired.) Instead of downloading the whole thing, twiddling your thumbs, or streaming it in real time, why not tell a system that you want to watch or listen to an item at a certain time, leaving the system to download it during off hours?


  1. Setting an appointment is only trivially different from watching Ally McBeal at 9:00. True enough, VCRs can “time-shift” Ally McBeal for you, but if 9:00 is convenient for you, you won’t bother. An appointment that somebody else sets (in this case, a TV network) that is nonetheless convenient for you is no different from an appointment you yourself set.
  2. In reality, most people find the schedules of TV networks just fine. The minority who find the schedules inconvenient use VCRs, which, despite the conventional wisdom, are not hard to program. A super-elite use “personal digital recorders,” like TiVos. There is no overwhelming need to rearrange existing TV networks’ schedules.
  3. It is also rare to find someone who wants to watch “streaming media” who doesn’t want to watch it right now. The whole point of on-demand multimedia is just that: Demand, i.e., impulse or convenience. Not many people are going to want to pre-schedule their impulses.
  4. Broadband files are big, but they amount to very little elapsed program time. This, indeed, is one of the annoyances of today’s Web. So if you schedule an “appointment” in advance, you may have saved a tedious three-hour download, but the resulting video is still only 10 minutes long (and too small compared to your nice TV set, and inaccessible).
  5. Deferred reception (a better term?) works well within the Akamai-style distributed server technique, where files are served from a vast network of mirrored machines. If you need your download at midnight, there’s probably a server free at that time. So there is a benefit here: Conservation of global bandwidth, or at least intelligent use of it. The problem? One person’s midnight is another person’s noontime. The Web is World Wide. The actual bandwidth savings may be minimal.

Good idea, but hardly a killer app. Don’t give us another glorified push technology – something technically possible but with no undeniable advantage.

Kids know “multi” when they see it

Hey, big surprise: Young people surf and watch TV simultaneously.

We knew this already. We’d read the articles –

– and we’ve lived it ourselves. A moderately unusual but not at all uncommon day here in the Fortress of Content Solitude has all of the following going at once: ICQ, Eudora (offline), Pine (online, in real time), Lynx and a graphical browser, all on two monitors; television; the radio; a cup of tea, laced with the hooch of pure vanilla extract.

“Nearly half of online children age 8 to 12 say they do nothing else but watch TV when it is on; but 52 percent are engaged in other forms of media consumption at the same time, according to [some kind of survey or other],” reads a new report.

The kids can handle all that stimuli. So can anyone vaguely classifiable as Generation X, because we were the first generation to grow up with television and then also computers. We have a few ideas on where to go with this fact. Good to see it is now very well documented.

Oh, and one more thing: If all these people have computers and TV sets going all at once, what makes you think anyone wants the two of them rolled into one? Actually, the EasyWeb propaganda repeats puffery from some consultant or other: “These so-called ‘telewebbers’ are prime candidates for the early adoption of a single device, either a TV or a PC, which offers interactive programming, the researcher found.“ But: “This interactivity, however, cannot be intrusive or take away from the primary activity of watching TV.” Well, that rather militates against convergence, doesn’t it? Fie on it, we say.


Digital film:
Digital, yes; film, no

Previously, we wondered whether the designers of digital-cinema systems would blow it, or at least blow a few details.

However, Godfrey Cheshire, recently fired as the New York Press film critic (he was too old), has pretty much nailed the entire question of digital cinema. In short, when the methods of transmission and projection eliminate celluloid altogether, cinema will be eliminated altogether, to be replaced by television.

Pondering digital’s effects, most people base their expectations on the outgoing technology. They have a hard time grasping that, after film, the “moviegoing” experience will be completely reshaped by – and in the image of – television. To illustrate why, ponder this: if you were the executive in charge of exploiting Seinfeld’s last episode and you had the chance to beam it into thousands of theaters and charge, say, $25 a seat, why in the hell would you not do that? Prior to digital theaters, you wouldn’t do it because the technology wouldn’t permit it. After digital, such transpositions will be inevitable because they’ll be enormously lucrative.

[...] Here’s another possibility, based on a fairly rudimentary expansion of what’s already available technically. It shouldn’t be difficult to install automated cameras and mics in most movie theaters. So let’s say you go to see one of the new, theatrical specials like, say, Oprah’s America. Thanks to the new technology, you can punch a button in the console on your armrest, and if the host chooses you, you’ll be able to talk to Oprah or Dave from your seat, live, as people in theaters around the country watch you and hope for their own moment in the limelight.

We are surprised that the great cinéaste failed to note the parallels with Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, in which communal two-way television experiences do reach into everyone’s homes, with a flashing red light to tell you when to speak. (Very spooky, with a drugged-out Julie Christie and sinister Sprockets-like on-air host.)

Typically, people now watch TV as if in a group, even when alone, and view movies as individuals, even when accompanied by others. That is, they’ll talk, hoot, flip the bird at the tube, but sink into mesmerized solitude before the movie screen. Digital may well turn that around. People wanting to watch serious movies that require concentration will do so at home, or perhaps in small, specialty theaters. People who want to hoot and holler, flip the bird and otherwise have a fun communal experience – courtesy of Oprah or Scream: Interactive, say – will head down to the local enormoplex.

While dystopian, is this a more credible preview of a world of convergent media than the unworkable delirium of melding television and the Internet, against which we have raged impotently?

Note also that Cheshire’s predictions aren’t all that futuristic. It is already quite possible to visit a movie theatre to watch a pay-per-view “event,” like a smackdown wrestling XXXtravaganza.

Further, it is well-known that urban African-American (sic) audiences do a lot of talking back at the screen as-is – and not just for comedies or whatever “black” pictures the white studios put out. One is also familiar with the phenomena of Rocky Horror, Grease, and Monty Python pictures, all of which elicit call-and-response or audience delivery of dialogue. And there is of course Sing-a-Longa Sound of Music.

And finally, movies shot on digital video are the ugliest things we’ve ever seen. Indeed, even television series and music videos (and, increasingly with Procter & Gamble, commercials) that are shot on video and broadcast on television look vaguely cheap compared to the equivalent shot on film. (We recall being able to spot the difference as early as age 12, and arguing over it. We of course always called ’em right.)

In short, lovers of cinematographic beauty and the communal solitude of moviegoing had better get set for ugliness, crudity, and forced collectivism for the rest of our lives.


Recent links

What have we been up to, you ask? Oh, a little song, a little dance. But not quite enough seltzer down the pants, if you get our meaning.

En tout cas (is that our favourite French phrase of all?), here are some semi-interesting content-related links of note:

  1. Latino Portals a Narrow Space”: Well, no kidding. You’re dealing with second-world countries (read: poverty, low computer use, expensive online time) or immigrants who, if they stick with the Spanish language, may not earn a lot of money or, if they assimilate into the AngloBorg, have little reason to frequent a Spanish-language site. And isn’t Brazil barely a Latin American country, being gigantic, heterogeneous (a million Japanese!), and Portuguese-speaking?

    U.S. Latinos read mainstream sites such as Yahoo and America Online over Latino portals such as, StarMedia and [T]hey just don’t know about the Spanish-speaking resources available to them on the Internet. [... A]n analyst at the Yankee Group who tracks the Brazilian Internet market [says] it’s all about your ties to traditional media.... Brazilians preferred regional and local content rather than general Latin American news.... “Having the Latin American strategy for Brazil that one size fits all doesn’t work.”
  2. Making a Case for Selling Online Content”: According to the author, getting away with charging for content online only works if you fit into one of these categories: Accreditation (training; universities), very strong market power (big old-media names), lack of available advertising (porn), specialized information (science; law), archival information (back issues). “[T]he more competitive a sector is, the more difficult it is to sell content online. In contrast, the more unique one’s position and the more one can tap into corporate or expense account spending, the higher the chances for success. Selling general information to consumers, no matter how good or what the subject is, has been an uphill struggle.” Am I Hot or Not, come on down!
  3. A very crusty, trenchant, borderline bitchy dissection of E-books from an old-timer: “The Ghost of E-Books Past.” We respect the old-timers, even though these days you could fit all of us into a small soup kitchen, which indeed is where you would be most likely to find us, since we are too smart, seasoned, opinionated, and old to work for the nose-ring kids. “Hundreds and hundreds of phrases in Kerouac’s text were linked to pop-up annotations in various media: photographs of people, places, memorabilia from the author’s estate, and pages from his notebooks; audio readings of various texts; clips from films; original interviews videotaped for the project. All these years later, it still looks great. Unfortunately, you can’t see it, because it’s no longer available. When we started the project, no one had ever heard the word Netscape. When we finished it, the word Netscape was everywhere, and before long the World Wide Web helped kill the CD-ROM publishing business and in the process set multimedia production back at least five years.... Most people in established book-publishing houses use the phrase ‘CD-ROM’ as if it were interchangeable with the phrase ‘Richard Nixon.’ They had a bad experience and, like the rest of humanity, they want to forget it.”
  4. Who are you calling sister?”: Wymmyn don’t all agree on wymmynz sites. Jeez, we coulda told you that. (In fact, we did: What does Hissyfit have to do with ChickClick, its slush fund?) And don’t cry for Webgrrls, Argentina. The truth is, we never needed you.

Digital-TV interfaces

Here’s an easy rule to live by: Your content is irrelevant if people can’t get at it.

People have finally noticed that “convergent” TV, which doesn’t work anyway, relies on an inconsistent hodgepodge of interfaces.

It gets worse: Not only is everyone’s information architecture different, meaning all the menu commands are, too, but the hardware isn’t even standardized. In other words, every remote control is different, and everything they remotely control is, too. (That’s already true in the real world. How many incompatible remote controls do you own?)

And – oopsy! – everyone has managed to forget that requiring real people to manipulate tiny physical buttons while staring at tiny virtual menu options pretty much amounts to duct-taping a neon sign flashing GET LOST! to a customer’s TV set. Even “normal” people will go nuts trying to look at and press buttons on the physical remote (angled horizontally; at close range, requiring a certain eye focus) and then look at and respond to prompts on a television (angled vertically; far away, requiring refocusing).

And – oopsy again! – what is someone with arthritis and bifocals sposta do here?

How about someone who is more or less blind?

So let’s recap:

The access problem is being largely ignored. The CRTC in Canada managed to overlook the whole shebang, while also refusing to require audio description of new digital TV channels. (The actual glib dismissals can be read here. Big file. Works lousy in Netscape 4, which we no longer support.) And did you know that one existing set-top box forced you to change all its onscreen menus from English to Spanish just to turn on the second audio program to listen to descriptions? What planet are these people living on?

The National Center for Accessible Media is trying to fix things.

Metadata, again

Eric Scheid writes in to plug a project that uses TITLEs on links to provide more information on search results. “Standard-looking database extraction, right? Click any of the links to bring up the full details... but just point at the link and meta information pops up with the description of the page to come, saving a round trip to the Web+database server. As you can see from the long descriptions involved, it would have been very unwieldy to include them into the table proper.”